By Katharine Shilcutt
By Jeremy Parzen
By Molly Dunn
By Joanna O'Leary
By Katharine Shilcutt
By Katharine Shilcutt
By Brooke Viggiano
By Katharine Shilcutt
1600 Westheimer, Houston
Long before Houston's Lower Westheimer was ground zero for hot new restaurants, there was Hugo's — the critical favorite from chef Hugo Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught. After their success with eternal brunch favorite Backstreet Cafe, Vaught and Ortega decided to take a shot at making the sort of interior Mexican food that Ortega and his brother Ruben, the pastry chef, had grown up eating in Mexico. The result was the best Mexican restaurant Houston had ever seen, a title that Hugo's still holds 11 years later. The humble Hugo Ortega's story of finally making it after crossing the Mexican border three separate times and working his way up from a dishwasher is the American dream personified.
Ninfa's on Navigation
2704 Navigation Boulevard, Houston
"Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo is popularly credited with inventing fajitas and inspiring an entire nation to embrace Tex-Mex food in the form of flat beef strips delivered on an iron comal so hot it's hilariously and wonderfully unsafe. And although other Tex-Mex restaurants picked up on and diluted Ninfa's fajitas over the decades (and although all of the other Ninfa's were sold off to franchisees), the original Ninfa's on Navigation still makes its fajitas the old-fashioned way — the right way, if you ask many die-hard Tex-Mex fans — with outside skirt steak. Although the patio has been greatly expanded and modernized, inside you'll still find that familiar jangly maze of rooms and abuelitas making tortillas as you walk in the front door.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
5839 Westheimer, Houston
"Any list of essential Texas restaurants must include at least one upscale steakhouse," says Edmund Tijerina, food critic at the San Antonio Express-News. And although he was referring to Bohanan's in San Antonio, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse rocketed to the top of our list with by far the most votes from our panel of food writers. This Houston-based steakhouse with possibly the best wine list in the state is the gold standard when it comes to high-end steakhouses, and although it's from a family that's made a business of exporting Houston concepts throughout the state (Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Pappas Bar-B-Q and more), this clubby, ultra-plush steakhouse has only one other location — in Dallas.
2775 Washington Boulevard, Beaumont
Sartin's Seafood Restaurant
3520 Nederland Avenue, Nederland
Sure, Kim Sartin Tucker's restaurant sells food other than barbecued crabs. But that other stuff isn't why people make hours-long drives to this cutely shabby seafood shack in Nederland where the motto is: "We got the crabs." Sartin's is "home to one of the only native dishes of Southeast Texas," says Reid. "Barbecue crabs," served with a tumble of fried okra in a festive atmosphere. And Kearney remarks that Sartin's is at its best when "you're digging into a huge plate of crabs, catfish, stuffed crabs and fried Gulf shrimp."
3755 Richmond, Houston
Tony Vallone has hosted everyone from exotic royalty and sitting heads of state to Tony Bennett and Oscar de la Renta since opening his namesake restaurant in 1965, and although Vallone's focus hasn't always been Italian, he was instrumental in elevating that cuisine to fine-dining status with a restaurant that's held its coveted "see-and-be-seen" status for decades. Today, Tony's is still widely recognized as one of the top — and correspondingly most expensive — restaurants in the state. "Not only is Tony's one of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. today," said Mariani in 2011, "it's one of the best restaurants period."
1100 Westheimer, Houston
Although it's still an infant by this list's standards, food writers across the state and the nation heralded chef Chris Shepherd's ambitious restaurant in Houston, which combines the city's tapestry of ethnic cuisines with an impressive array of locally produced, caught, raised or grown ingredients. Shepherd's unique and innovative menu bills itself as "The Story of Houston Food" and revels in remixing them in dishes such as Korean braised goat and dumplings in a warm, casual setting that makes the open kitchen feel like a natural part of the wood-and-steel dining room.
PRAIRIE & LAKES
Babe's Chicken Dinner House
104 North Oak, Roanoke
As its name would suggest, chicken is Babe's signature dish. Babe herself — Mary Beth Vinyard — passed away in 2008, but her husband Paul still runs the place they started in a 100-year-old warehouse in Roanoke two decades ago. People swear by Babe's original recipes for chicken-fried steak and fried chicken — and these are the only options at the original Roanoke location — although the restaurant chain is now equally famous for its Mamma Jo's roast (based on Paul's mother's recipe), the green chowchow that comes with its catfish and — believe it or not for a fried-chicken place — its vegetables.
Gaido's is WAY overrated. Maybe it was the place to be 80 years ago, but not today. It's expensive and not that good.
This is a damn fine list with one glaring absence. ALADDINS mediterranean grill.
Its is by far the best Mediterranean in Houston and instead you choose like 7 different beef / steak places. Granted I don't eat red meat so I'm not the fairest of judges but I will say its by far the best Mediterranean restaurant in Houston. It should be in there. Go there. Now.
Tei-An is nice. Really.
But Tei-Tei Robata bar kills it. Sit at the bar and order a whole fish. Fish Charcoal Salt. That's it. I never got Japanese food until I had a scorpion fish there. http://www.voiceplaces.com/tei-tei-robata-bar-dallas-fort-worth-2317991-l/
Patillo's on 11th Street in Beaumont was torn down a year and a half ago and replaced with a Jack in the Box.
Well, I can see by this list ( and the comments section ) I'll have a few road trips to make this Spring. Thanks !!!
Great article, thanks for putting this together. Question: did you snub Alison or did she not respond?
I've been to 24 of 30 on this interesting list. I would find a place for Houston's America's, Indika, This Is It, and Kim Son in place of Hugo's, Pappas Bros, and Underbelly. This Is It and Kim Son aren't the best of their genre, but they are legendary and have had huge impact on Texas--Vietnamese and soul food have to be somewhere, as should Cajun--B&B's or Crawfish Shack in Crosby, perhaps! I would also love a place for El Real in Houston. I just ate at Perini Ranch a few weeks ago, and their standards have fallen considerably since prior visits. I've loved Campisi's in Dallas since I was a kid and would include them in place of Tei An. El Paso's H&H Car Wash and/or Chico's Tacos should have a place as should Cotulla Style Pit BBQ in Laredo. And Frenchy's Chicken and Lankford Grocery! Alright, pretty impossible task.
You've got the wrong cut of meat for Ninfa's fajitas.
Per your newspaper and Robb Walsh, it is USDA Choice Outside Skirt: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2010/07/robb_walshs_100_favorite_houst_96.php
I would have liked to see some West Texas entries, but that's ok. We're always forgotten out there. BTW, West Texas (Big Spring to El Paso).
@kcothroll Funny you should mention that; here's an answer for you (along with addressing East and South Texas too). http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/2013/01/the_30_essential_texas_restaur_1.php
Very good list - I was pleasantly surprised by how well it lined up with mine. Key missing entries were Royer's in Round Top and Hudson on the Bend.
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